Saturday, 7 June 2014

A week in poetry

I should have pointed out more clearly the other day that there have been lots of thoughtful responses in the blogosphere to the whole Paxman and poetry thing. Here are four excellent reads to enjoy over the weekend.

George Szirtes in The Guardian - lots of good points made, and even where I disagree with George, he doesn't claim that Paxman has no right to an opinion.

Katy Evans-Bush at Baroque In Hackney - typically considered take on things, and anyway you should always read any article that contains the phrase "pellety nest".

Jon Stone at Sidekick Books - very thought-provoking, and it's good to see someone suggesting positive steps to change the current situation.

Padraig Reidy at Index on Censorship - argues with some of George's points, but also gets right to the nub of why that response I mentioned the other day was such tosh.

My own position again?
1 I don't much like the whole 'ordinary people' thing, but I'd guess that Paxman was using it as shorthand for 'people who don't in the normal course of things buy or read poetry' - in a brief interview that doesn't seem unreasonable.

2 He has every right to make such comments. He'd have every right whether he was a judge or not. Provoking a bit of debate isn't a bad thing. It is a worry if it detracts attention from the actual chosen books, but there's plenty of time before the awards are made to focus on them.

3 He might have a point about failing to engage with people.

4 If he has, though, I think he's identified the wrong reasons for this. I think it has more to do with how hard it is to casually encounter poetry.

5 That's it.


Tim Love said...

The "ordinary people" phrase needs unpacking. Here are 2 examples of ordinary people -

* Somebody came to our local poetry group recently. Her poem was accompanied by a photo of a combine harvester. She said she'd had 20+ poems published in the local paper. After the meeting she mailed me to say that she writes "for ordinary people". She hasn't come again.

* My wife did lit up to age 18 (in Italy, so Dante and Montale). She attends a Reading Group (novels) and reads serious novels. She usually finds my stuff irritating and opaque if she reads it at all.

Both these people are involved with (and interested in) literature. It's just that the poetry I exposed them to is of a style they've not seen before. I don't think they want the poetry somehow "rationalised" so that what's left can be explained to them (which is what some claim that Paxman wants). I think they'd appreciate being shown some ways into the poem, and some clues about the assumptions that the poet's made about the readers. Someone raised on Quasimodo and Montale (or even Dylan Thomas) might have trouble with Larkin and WCW's "Red Wheelbarrow", let alone with my stuff.

I think the kind of intros the poets make at readings would help people (I also think Ruth Padel's "52 Ways ..." is well intentioned - the flak she's sometimes received from fellow poets a mite unfair). The problem is that such intros rarely if ever appear in poetry books. As I've said elsewhere, poets can easily put intros on the web nowadays for people to find if they wish.

I've also noticed that some poets become very defensive when a non-poetry-reader challenges them - I suspect they're not used to such discussions, which is a shame.

Andrew Shields said...

I like that point about "how hard it is to casually encounter poetry". I wonder if many of us also liked that about poetry when we first got into it. That is, we liked how our discovery of it made it and us special. We liked that it was our secret. All this connected to a beautiful bit from Transtromer:

Anonymous said...

Just clicked on to Jon Stone's piece. He articulates a real problem there: Cape pats Picador on the back, Picador pats Cape back, occasionally a "new voice" (but only a very specific new voice) is heard. We all see this, it's impossible not to, but still the same old rigmarole, as if the winner of the Eliot or the Forward has risen to the top of the pile by a force of nature.

Matt Merritt said...

I agree Tim - someone on another blog, or maybe Facebook, suggested that poets could do what Kona McPhee did with a recent collection and put a 'companion' on the internet, with little introductions to each poem. It's there if people need it and want it.

I loved the Transtromer, piece, Andrew, thanks for flagging it up. I guess there is an element of that feeling that you've discovered a secret, like with certain bands. I'm more thinking of the fact that, even 20 years ago in the UK, there were far more poems in mainstream newspapers and magazines, or popping up on more general TV and (particularly) radio programmes. Now things seem much more strictly compartmentalised, so you have to go looking for it.

Andrew Shields said...

Accessibility is definitely a problem. But if you look for poetry on the internet, it's everywhere. A lot of it is very "ordinary," but once you get a good name or two to search with, you should be able to find some really good work.